Schools as a Leading Market Opportunity for Decarbonization

The commercial buildings market is very complex, with wildly divergent ownership, management control, and building characteristics. Buildings range from strip malls to office towers to convention centers to big box retail stores. Ownership could be local government, merchant builders (who build and then sell), local family businesses, international corporations, and fast food franchises. Each ownership category makes decisions very differently from the others. Some commercial buildings are incredibly complex, some buildings are cookie cutter simple and repetitive. Given this complexity, where do you start when you are trying to change the built environment?

It’s easy. Start with schools.

Local schools are the center of a community, and if we want to achieve decarbonization at the community level we have to start with schools. Educational buildings of all types, including colleges, universities, and even libraries are great early markets.

Key Market Characteristics

Schools have key local decision makers (school boards and school committees and voters/interested parents). Many states have some level of state capital project funding that can also be a key leverage point to either require or incentivize high performance. Voters (parents) care about schools and how schools support the education, health, and safety of their students.

Schools are highly visible assets. They are obvious hubs of activity within communities. They are important for a variety of reasons that include the health, well-being, and education for both students and the larger community. In addition, cutting-edge buildings can definitely be used as a teaching tool. Schools are a source of pride and definition of the community.

Within each state or city, a small number of architectural and engineering firms design the vast majority of schools. These firms can take their experiences and translate them into institutional knowledge for each project afterwards. These design firms can customize schools for each community, while also keeping up with changing technical innovation.

Precedents and Resources

The first organization to put all of the pieces together is the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS). CHPS was started in 1999 in California by utilities focused on energy efficiency and has since expanded into broader design, construction, and operational issues. A variety of resource are available on its website, and a number of school districts and states across the country have adopted protocols directly based on the CHPS model.

NEEP has adapted the CHPS protocol to the Northeast and publishes Northeast CHPS. An example of how NE-CHPS has been adopted and rolled out in Rhode Island is available here. Links to high performance school efforts in 10 other northeast states and the District of Columbia are available on the same page, with further links in each state page to individual high performance schools. NEEP’s resources to help cities and states move forward with schools are within its Community Action Planning for Energy Efficiency (CAPEE) resources.

New Buildings Institute (NBI) has the data to indicate that schools have been early adopters of zero energy design and operations, which can readily become zero carbon design and operations with appropriate selection of heating equipment and renewable electricity availability. NBI has a variety of technical guidance and case studies on its website, and has also assembled a variety of resources for schools in a new resource hub. Schools-specific communication and planning tools can support early   stage efforts to shift thinking towards zero energy. For example, stakeholder engagement has the following set of six key messages:

1. Zero Energy: Zero energy (ZE) schools are low energy buildings coupled with renewables that provide a ready generation resource. A school achieves zero when the energy produced meets or exceeds the energy used over the course of a year. Schools are early leaders in ZE and serve as hubs to educate others.

2. Lower Operating Costs: K-12 schools spend $8 billion on energy, more than is spenton computers and textbooks combined. Schools built to ZE performance have lower operating costs and over time, save money on energy bills that can be spent on educating students. ZE also reduces exposure of school budgets to the volatility of shifting energy prices.

3. Increased Student Performance: Occupants of ZE schools benefit from heightened student performance, increased average attendance, better occupant health and improved teacher satisfaction and retention.

4. Educational Benefits: ZE schools are living laboratories, stimulating learning and innovation. Occupant engagement in ZE schools can provide additional energy savings and serve as a teaching tool for students, STEM programs and the larger community. This greater understanding and deeper knowledge of concepts like science, math, and technology in relation to their surroundings give students the confidence to take leadership roles in their schools as advocates for environmental sustainability and their own learning needs.

5. Resiliency: ZE schools are also more resilient in severe weather events. They can create safe havens for the community during emergencies since the building energy generation systems can be islanded and remain functional, continuing to provide light and space conditioning during an outage. They also use daylighting and natural ventilation.

6. Getting to Zero: While ZE is the end game for building sustainably, it is a process and can take time to accomplish. School districts can start now on this path to zero.”

The U.S. Department of Energy (U.S. DOE) has put together multiple resources on a zero energy schools page. This includes several recent case studies and a link to a detailed (226 pages!) zero energy design guide for schools. The design guide, published in 2018, is part of the Advanced Energy Design Guide series and the first in the series to focus on zero energy. An appendix briefly discussing heating system choices, which include ground source heat pumps that have been used in hundreds of schools as well as other heat pump choices. Heat pumps combined with sufficient local renewable electricity or a renewable electric grid gets the school to zero or very low carbon.

While this article focuses on K-12 schools, colleges and universities of all types have also shown excellent leadership in adopting zero energy and/or low carbon goals. In California, the University of California has pledged that all of its campuses will meet carbon neutrality goals and has implemented a multi-faceted plan to do so. Stanford University has switched its central plant to a heat pump system to enable the campus to get on a low carbon pathway. The Stanford project reduces overall campus emissions by 68 percent while saving an estimated $420 million over the next 35 years. There are over 800 central plants (or district heating systems) in the U.S., many that serve educational campuses are very large targets for carbon reductions.

Stretching education just a bit more, a wide variety of public buildings have been designed as zero energy buildings, including libraries and museums. Because of their visibility and importance in the community, these buildings also make great early targets. The designs of these buildings are usually distinctive, but the underlying mechanical systems can make the change to renewable energy.

So schools, they are a great place to start. Then expand.

This blog is part of Building Decarb Central, a series of blogs and other resources aimed at providing a constant flow of information on building decarbonization. Be sure to check out our web portal for more stories, resources, and information.

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